A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems, 1994-2014, by Marilyn Hacker, consists of 25 new poems; translations of French and Francophone poets whose work she encountered in France and the Middle East, and selections from four previous books. Like a simply set table that is cast in a certain light, the book brings us to places filled with thoughtful sentiment. It would be misleading, however, to say that the patterns of life in this collection are benign. Yes, we are embraced by the consistent lyricism of the poet’s voice and her facility with various poetic forms. But, in drawing on the most frightening records of history, and in chronicling the cruelties of an age, this work wrings a fraught beauty.
A member of a feminist-poetry sisterhood, Hacker is allied with Carolyn Forché as she bears witness; with Adrienne Rich as she shatters silences; and with Audre Lorde as she shows us the ravages of illness and the courage to confront it—an alternative to suffering in silent shame.
Akin though she is to these feminist poets, Hacker brings men into the story, as well. Adopting Hayden Carruth’s “paragraph” as a poetic form, she invites him into her narrative in several poems, including “Paragraph for Hayden”. The subject of the poem alludes to death, which, barely camouflaged in its different causes, stalks almost every poem in this book. We read about terminal drinking and smoking, about war, cancer, and AIDS. We read cautionary poems about youth and old age, and poems in which men and women frequent dangerous places in dangerous times.
Apparently unafraid of any subject, Hacker grapples with the Holocaust; illness; and the female body as both personal and political territory. The latter is especially complex and powerful in the poem “Rabi’a’s Renga”, about a young Arab girl who seeks asylum from a culture that punishes its survivors of rape. The girl, while seeking refugee status, finds herself in prison. Hacker enlightens us to the threats to refugeesthe prison sentence issued by one’s home country to incarceration in one’s new “homeland.”
A frequent traveler to the embattled Middle East, Hacker traces the refugee’s paradox across history and cultural borders, sometimes in the course of a few lines. One of the book’s final poems, “Ghazal: dar al-harb,” etches the knotty relationship between oppressor and protector. True to the Arabic ghazal form, the last words are repeated at the end of the lines in each couplet. With the repetition of “my country,” Hacker takes ownership for problems she sees with the United States’ role in the Middle East conflict. She writes, “Who trained the interrogators, bought the bulldozers? /—paper trails all indicate my country.”
The specter of the refugee also surfaces in the poem, this time in reference to Walter Benjamin. Benjamin, too, fled an oppressive regime: though in his case, it was that of the Nazis. Despite being granted an American visa, Benjamin died under mysterious circumstances—most say suicide—before he could escape Nazi-occupied Spain. Linking his death to the burden of statelessness, Hacker writes, “Walter Benjamin died in despair of a visa/permitting him to integrate my country.”
In this bleak universe, Oppression itself is the oppressor, and Death is the murderer. (There are few contexts in life—poetry among them—in which this axiom applies.) Hacker’s poems are great equalizers: no one is free from blame, no one free from dying; there is little emotional wiggle room. Poem after poem bears the weight of despairing people’s struggle to survive. Bearing witness is Hacker’s life’s work, her testimony. Born in New York City in 1942 to Jewish immigrant parents, Hacker carries fear, danger, and the tentativeness of survival across history. Her compassion for Rabi’a, for example, mirrors the struggle of Jews leaving Europe during the war—as well as the struggles of Jews and Arabs, who become one and the same. In Hacker’s book, we are all suffering, and we are all responsible.
A cancer survivor herself, Hacker catalogs the sick and the departed, creating solidarity among all those who suffer. The opening line of “Against Elegies,” the first selected poem from Winter Numbers, reads, “James has cancer. Catherine has cancer” and continues the list of the dead in a language that flattens emotion. “Natalie died by gas in Montpeyroux. / In San Francisco, Ralph died/ of lung cancer, AIDS years later, Lew/ wrote to me. Lew, who at forty-five…” it continues. Tragic though it may be, death is commonplace in the world—and in Hacker’s poetry. Death is everywhere. Hacker stresses the equal importance of each loss, despite the circumstance. If “a rose is a rose is a rose,” then death is the same, each belonging to an individual. The poem ends,
For every partisan
there are a million gratuitous
deaths from hunger, all-American
mass murders, small wars,
the old diseases and the new.
Who dies well? The privilege of asking doesn’t have to do with age.
For most of us
no question what our deaths, our lives, mean.
At the end, Catherine will know what she knew,
and James will, and Melvin,
and I, in no one’s stories, as we are.
Not all of Hacker’s poems are written so bluntly. “Scars on Paper,” selected from the book, Squares and Courtyards, abstracts the cancer in poetic terms. Referring to the speaker’s own lost breast, she says, “Now one of them’s the shadow of a breast/ with a lost object’s half-life…” In this poem, the multiple strata of loss include the courage to heal. The “half–life” is a very long time, but not in the same sentimental way that “eternal” is. That said, in the context of these poems’ political iconography, the terms “half-life” sparks a series of associations, not all of them positive. “Half-life,” as a reference to radioactivity, can be a cancer’s cause as well as a cancer’s cure, among other things. The poet plays with layers of language here, just as she plays with the layers of historical truth throughout the book. In her poetic discourse about illness, Hacker explores the annals of medicine, as well. As such, it is no surprise to see her name as a judge of the 2012 Hippocrates Prize in Poetry and Medicine.
Indeed, in this collection we see how the poet confronts illness: with the same grit as she faces other forms of oppression, and with poetic structure as her main tool. The author employs myriad forms, including sonnets, ghazals, sapphics and rengas. The forms themselves are relevant to the overall message of Hacker’s work, which bridges the gap between the dominant cultures of the English-speaking world with everything that is considered “other.” Writing three lines of eleven syllables, followed by a fourth line with five beats revives the pulse of the poet of Lesbos, Sappho, who invented the form. Hacker’s use of the classical format for Arabic love poetry—the ghazal— and her use of the Japanese renga— another ancient form, makes this poetry of incantation, where familiar patterns and rhythms are meant to reach across the artificial geographic borders that divide people. Her voice rings louder than the blare of news reports and tells us what it’s like to be in the trenches, digging to survive.
I struggle, reading these poems. I try to hold their pain carefully—try to transform it somehow. Perhaps this is delusion. Each escape from death is only temporary. In A Stranger’s Mirror, this modern-day memento mori, Hacker is sure to remind us of that.